Although George Washington may have personally met her only once for a period of around half an hour, the kindness and respect that he showed toward Phillis Wheatley, a female African slave, serves as a telling example of his moral complexity and capacity for humanitarian understanding.
The name of the young girl who became known as Phillis Wheatley was formed from a combination of the name of the slave ship that brought her to Boston from West Africa at the age of seven, the Phillis, and the surname of the family who purchased her. Compared to most slave owners, John and Susanna Wheatley were strikingly compassionate. They allowed their eighteen-year-old daughter Mary to begin tutoring the young Phillis in Greek, Latin, poetry, and other subjects.
Eventually Wheatley's owners began to see such great potential in her intellectual development that they excused her from household duties and allowed her to focus on her studies. The level of education that Wheatley reached, although she was never formally schooled, was unique not only for a slave but also for many women at the time. She began to write poetry as early as twelve years of age and gained international recognition in 1771 with the publication of an elegy commemorating the death of a preacher named George Whitefield.
In December of 1775, Washington – the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army – received a letter from Wheatley containing an ode written in his honor. The poem illustrates Wheatley's somewhat surprisingly passionate patriotic sentiment, which factors strongly in much of her poetry. It ends with a stanza reading: "Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side, / Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide. / A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine, / With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! Be thine."
Washington responded with a letter expressing his appreciation for Wheatley’s poem. He even considered publishing it but feared people might interpret that action as self-aggrandizing. Not only was this letter the only one Washington is known to have written to a former slave, but he addressed Wheatley as “Miss Phillis” and signed off as “Your obed[ien]t humble servant,”1 unusual and even paradoxical courtesies. Washington also extended an invitation for Wheatley to call on him at his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although B. J. Lossing later claimed that she had visited in March of 1776, there is no contemporaneous evidence of such a meeting. Nevertheless, Washington and Wheatley’s polite correspondence has endured as an early instance of the progression of racial tolerance and understanding in antebellum America.
While Washington went on to lead the Continental Army to an unlikely victory over the British, unfortunately the devastating social and economic effects of the war vastly diminished popular demand for poetry. Despite being legally freed from bondage in 1778, marrying a free black grocer named John Peters, and continuing to write poetry, Wheatley fell into poverty in the final years of her life and died tragically on December 5, 1784. Although her poetry never brought her great wealth, its legacy persisted after her death as a profound demonstration of African American knowledge, humanity, and achievement.
1. George Washington to Phillis Wheatley, 28 February 1776, Founders Online, National Archives.
Chernow, Ron. Washington: A Life. New York: Penguin, 2010.
Critical Essays on Phillis Wheatley, ed. William H. Robinson, Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1982.
Phillis Wheatley: Complete Writings, ed. Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2001.
Hirschfeld, Fritz. George Washington and Slavery: A Documentary Portrayal. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997.